WASHINGTON — Growing up, Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 never planned to be a Supreme Court justice.
She thought she might become a history teacher. After all, that was an acceptable profession for women at the time.
“In the 1950s when I was at Cornell, most women did not try or pursue the law profession,” Ginsburg told a group of 40 Cornell-in-Washington students yesterday in the nation’s highest courtroom.
She explained how half a century ago, no one wanted women in their law firms and there was little economic incentive for women to study law.
An influential Cornell professor, Robert E. Cushman, helped change Ginsburg’s career plans.
“He made me see that lawyers could make a difference” and that their work is rooted in “the most basic constitutional values,” she said.
After nearly nine years on the Court, Ginsburg has undoubtedly made a difference. However, students were surprised to see how much her political and physical stature contrast.
“Here we are in this big tall room and all of a sudden this tiny justice walks in,” said Natalie Walleser ’03. “There was this diminutive person who makes all these big decisions.”
The soft-spoken justice conversed with Cornell students for about 45 minutes yesterday, answering questions they had about her experience on the Court.
Erika Veley ’03 asked what measures the Court takes to foster an open relationship with the public.
Ginsburg replied that the Court’s main relationship is with people in the law professions. Justices speak at bar associations, colleges and universities, addressing both undergraduate and law students.
Ginsburg considers the Supreme Court to be one of the most open parts of government.
“We must justify everything that we do with reasons for all the world to see, for all the law students and professors to criticize,” she said.
Ginsburg makes summaries of all her written opinions available to the press, thereby contributing to quick, accurate reporting of judicial decisions.
Justin Peters ’03 questioned how Ginsburg responds to people who say that rather than waiting for cases to arrive, the Court engages in judicial activism.
“The Supreme Court is a reactive institution. We’re not innovating. We’re taking complaints,” she said.
“We have no agenda,” she added, explaining that issues such as school integration and conditions in prisons “were cases where federal judges were faced with violations of human rights and so they responded to it,” she said.
Still, Peters felt different about the Court’s behavior.
“I don’t think her response convinced me in believing that they’re all non-partisan and they’re all best friends,” he said.
Veley, on the other hand, felt more assured of the Court’s non-partisanship after hearing Ginsburg speak.
“I guess I left with sort of a secure feeling that the people who are making dependable, educated decisions are not influenced by any political ambitions,” Veley said.
Ginsburg says her opinions are guided by the Constitution, which she believes the founders intended to be a charter.
“There are clauses that call for interpretation,” she said, naming the “due process of law” clause as an example.
Moreover, ” ‘We the people’ has evolved over the years to include more and more people,” she said.
Erin Gunyan ’03 asked how often Ginsburg changes her decision on a case after consulting with the other eight justices before the Court releases its final decision.
“We have a lot of homework,” Ginsburg said, “so we come extremely well-prepared” to the private consultation sessions. “What none of us has is a closed mind,” she added. “It’s not until each of us has had a say that we have cross-conversation.”
Walleser noted that Ginsburg’s commentary on Cornell was limited since students focused their questioning on her Supreme Court duties.
“I kind of wish someone would’ve asked her more questions about what it was like to go to Cornell,” Walleser said.
Cornell-in-Washington students will have the opportunity to see the Supreme Court in session on Monday, March 25 when they attend hour-long sessions of Oral Arguments.
Archived article by Heather Schroeder